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General Motors

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said Monday it plans to develop post-accident procedures to safeguard against battery fires that could ignite following a crash involving the Volt, its showcase electrical car.

"The real question is about how to deal with the battery days after a severe crash," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, during a conference call with reporters on Monday. The call followed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Nov. 25th announcement that it was opening a formal safety defect investigation to assess the risk of fires in the Volt.

The investigation followed from two combustion events that occurred during testing of the Volt and its lithium-ion battery. The first came three weeks after a crash simulation in May, when a fire broke out in the test vehicle. A second came seven days after a November test on a battery assembly pack, when the battery emitted a small spark.

GM said it is taking two steps. On the customer side, it will offer all Volt customers a free loan of another GM vehicle made "with white glove treatment," Reuss said. Through October, GM had sold 5,329 Volts, and dealers had 3,086 in stock, excluding demo models.

Secondly, GM is developing protocols to ensure the battery is drained after a crash. Since the primary NHTSA crash test, which occurred in May, "we have developed a process to repower the battery after a crash," said Mary Barra, GM senior vice president for global product developing, during the media call. "We have been using this since July. We are working to extend this.

"The most important thing is that you need to depower the battery (after a crash)," Barra said. "The battery stores a lot of energy. In each of these cases, if that is accomplished, a fire will not occur." Besides ensuring that depowering protocols are in place, GM is seeking to improve the battery area design, Barra said, noting that the fires resulted not from battery chemistry but rather from the electronic components in the battery.

The executives compared the need to drain the battery after a crash to the need to drain gasoline from an internal combustion after a crash. "We have 100 years experience with the combustion engine," Reuss said. "This is safer than any internal combustion car."

In its Friday announcement, the NHTSA said its investigation followed a May Volt crash test, part of an effort to measure the vehicle's ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. During that test, the battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. Three weeks later a fire occurred in the test vehicle.

Since the incident, the NHTSA has continued to test the battery. In three tests this month, it intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle's coolant line. As part of the test, the battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover.

NHTSA said it is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. GM executives are working closely with the agency and the automaker supports the investigation, Reuss said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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